Thursday, October 29, 2015

One of the temptations teachers face is focusing on student activities rather than learning goals. We all have favorite lessons or projects we think students will enjoy or get something valuable from, and so we plan with these things in mind. The danger of this is that it's often not very clear to us or to our students just what learning is supposed to take place and why. As a result, we're often not sure how to assess whether students have learned what we hoped they would.  

A sure sign of a weak learning target is unclarity as to assessment. If I can't think of just what (and how) I'm going to assess learning during or after a lesson, then it's a safe bet that my target isn't clear and I've been focused on an activity and not on student learning. I need to move from my activity-orientation to a goal-orientation. Here's how:

1. 'Begin with the end in mind.' Start with the goal or target, and think of it in terms of what students will learn or do. Knowing where you want students to get in the end is more important than knowing what activity they'll do.  Activity is not our goal--learning is. We need to know where we're going, not just what we'll do along the way. 

2. Once the target is clear, then plan how you will assess the learning, both during and after the learning. Checking for understanding is critical to teaching and learning, and assessments should flow naturally from clear targets. 

3. Once the target is clear and the assessments are in place, activities can then be designed or adapted to teach the desired learning. Interestingly, by starting with the goal we sometimes discover that a favorite project or activity isn't so great after all. It may have served a purpose once, but now we just don't get as much from it as we (and students) need. Thinking about the target first may lead us to create a more effective learning activity. Working this way holds true whether we're planning units or daily lessons.

Activities are very important, of course, and are at the heart of learning. Targets and activities are not mutually exclusive, rather, well-designed activities deliver on the desired learning target. 

Another benefit of starting with the student learning goal is that it tends to push us away from teacher-focused activities and more toward student-focused activities. Students should do most of the thinking and intellectual work in the classroom. Keep the student-learning goal central and this will be more likely. 

We want students doing interesting and challenging work in our classrooms, but we want them doing this toward some well-defined end. Beginning with the end goal in mind will help us be sure that this happens. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

"The goal [of education] is not letters after one's name, but character that preceeds one's presence by reputation."
Grant Horner, John Milton: Classical Learning and the Progress of Virtue 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

When I played baseball as a kid the most tedious (and longest) part of practice was batting practice. This generally consisted of one player taking cuts at the pitches thrown by the coach, with the rest of the players scattered throughout the field chasing the occasional hit. Most of this time was spent standing and watching as one player after another took their allotted cuts, and one player fielded a ball. 

As I got older some of my coaches began using the time much more effectively by breaking players into smaller groups to practice hitting whiffle balls, bunting, working on pitching, etc. while only a few players collected the balls from batting practice. The difference was that all the players were engaged in some worthwhile practice. There was no standing around. We were involved with something useful all the time. 

One of the most important characteristics of an effective classroom is that all students are engaged in learning all the time. This can be challenging in situations where group instruction focused on one student at a time is thought to be most useful. In any whole-class learning we want to avoid the 'batting practice' scenario above where one student is engaged in learning (answering questions, giving a speech, reading, working at the board, etc.) and other students can tune out. Or, think of a DMV line--one person actively engaged and many others waiting passively for their turn. 

So, how do we avoid neglecting a class of students while we engage one or a few at a time? It isn't enough to just have them 'follow along' or 'pay attention' to what's going on. We want them to be mentally engaged with the learning at all times. Below are a few things that teachers can do to get started thinking about this very real challenge. 

  • have students correct their own work, fill in blanks on a study guide or fill in a graphic organizer
  • have students use a grading sheet or rubric to assess student presentations or speeches
  • stop occasionally and have students write three questions they have, or summarize the main point; or have them tell how they did the process differently, or would do it differently
  • stop and have A tell B, and a few Bs tell the class a main idea, question, or point of difference
  • if reading aloud is being used, have students not reading use active reading marks; have them show their marks occasionally to you or to another student
The items above are just a few of the strategies teachers can use to be sure that all students are engaged all the time in class. There are many ways to do this, of course. The main point is that we need to be sure that we don't have students 'standing in line' waiting for their turn or standing in the outfield staring at the clouds while a few students do something meaningful. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"For Milton, education is nothing more or less than the refashioning of a young, though fallen, human soul into a closer imitation of the image of God."
 Grant Horner, John Milton: Classical Learning and the Progress of Virtue

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Sticky notes can be a great tool for checking for understanding. In this particular activity, my 11th Grade Humane Letters students were using the progymnasmata exercise of comparison to evaluate the main characters in the Shakespeare plays, Pericles and Antony and Cleopatra, which we had just seen at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. 

For this particular activity, I did the following:
  • I had students individually consider the characters of Perices and Antony, given a worksheet with the comparison headings of birth, education, and achievements. 
  • After ten minutes, students then broke into small groups to compare notes. 
  • On blue and orange sticky notes I asked them to write one or two-word characteristics or traits for both figures, for each area (birth, education, achievements). If the trait was praise-worthy, they put it on an orange sticky. If not praise-worthy, then they put it on a blue sticky. After 10 or 15 minutes they had a collection of notes for each character. 
  • I put a grid on the board with the three areas horizontal and Pericles and Antony vertically. 
  • They then put the stickies in the appropriate boxes on the board.
  • We then discussed what they thought about each character, considering the areas of comparison and the virtues or vices they had identified. The color-coding made it easy to see at a glance that the students considered that the two characters had similar traits of birth and education, but in achievements Pericles was nearly all orange (virtue) and Antony very blue (vice). 
  • After further discussion, their exit pass was to write a paragraph comparing the two figures, assessing which was worthy of emulation or a figure to not emulate. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

"I have never bothered or asked", Goethe said to Friedrich Soret in 1830, "in what way I was useful to society as a whole; I contented myself with expressing what I recognized as good and true. That has certainly been useful in a wide circle; but that was not the aim; it was the necessary result."
Joseph Pieper, Leisure, The Basis of Culture 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Learning targets (or objectives) should focus specifically on what students will be able to do after the learning has taken place. They should be as clear and as concrete as possible, and teachers, as well as students, should be able to tell when they've been accomplished. 

Below is a table of some examples of strong and weak learning targets. Some of the examples in the weak category might be desirable as goals, but they won't be very helpful in guiding the teaching process, and they are stubbornly difficult to assess. 

The student will be able to…
The student will be able to…
label the bones of the hand
know the bones of the hand
define what the term worldview means
be clear about what worldviews are
recall the causes of the French Revolution
think about the causes of the French Revolution
solve and graph inequalities with two variables
work with inequalities with two variables
apply the elements of beauty to a new piece of art
appreciate a work of art

summarize the impact of the French Revolution
study the effects of the French Revolution
describe the causes of the French Revolution
be clear about the causes of the French Revolution
seek to understand the causes of revolution
analyze the roles of the key figures in the French Revolution
see the importance of the leaders of the French Revolution
explain why a work of art is worthy of praise
be inspired to admire the work of an artist
marvel at God’s creation
evaluate the justice or injustice of the actions of the leaders of the French Revolution
notice that there were warnings long before the outbreak of the French Revolution

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Effective classroom teachers successfully integrate four critical skills into their classrooms:
1. Content Planning
2. Assessment
3. Instruction
4. Classroom Culture/Management

In this post, I'll describe some of the elements of effective classroom culture.

All education is ultimately self-education, but teachers play a critical role in only guiding students' learning but in providing an orderly and gracious place where learning can best happen. Classroom environment has often been described in terms of managing the behavior and actions of students, and while this is necessary, it isn't a substitute for teachers creating a class culture of mutual respect and a love of learning. 

In an effective classroom, the teacher's interactions with students are professional and respectful, warm and loving. These will be expressed differently, of course, accounting for differences of temperament of both teacher and student. But the character of the effective classroom is one of kindness and respectfulness. Certainly teachers must be the undisputed authority in the room, but this doesn't mean that the classroom is a cold place. Warm and courteous relations are the norm in the effective classroom.

As the tone-setter in the room, the teacher can help students to fit comfortably into this culture by carefully thinking out in advance, and communicating clearly to students,the expectations they have for routines and movements. Students need to know what is appropriate to say, how to move, what to do, how to ask for help, etc., for each activity and transition. Again, the point isn't control but a classroom that runs smoothly so that students can get on with the business of learning. The fuzzier the expectations are, or the less consistently they are applied, the more potential trouble the teacher is encouraging in the room. And this is, of course, very detrimental to learning. Teachers who don't clearly communicate expectations or who don't consistently enforce them are, in effect, training their students to disregard them. If there is turmoil in this classroom, the problem is much more with the teacher than the students.

Effective teachers take time to practice routines and transitions early in the year, particularly with younger students. While this will take class time up front, experienced teachers know that in the long run much more time is gained since students will move quickly and efficiently between activities. Teachers who are too concerned about curriculum to teach necessary routines will experience frustration as the year goes on.

Teachers who do these things well also consider the arrangement of the room and how even the furniture will best support learning and classroom culture. Wisdom is required here, since classes of students vary from year to year or class to class, and what might work very well for one group of students might be inviting trouble in another. 

When it comes to enforcing classroom or school rules, effective teachers know how to do this in a way that communicates to the student that the teacher is 'on their side'. The consequence (whatever it may be) is necessary and is, in fact, for the student's good. Teachers who stay calm and who doggedly refuse to take disobedience personally are in a much better position to communicate graciously (if firmly) to the student.

When conflicts happen--and they will--effective teachers are able to avoid a mere behavior modification approach,which can work for the short term, but rather are able to get to heart issues with students, which is the only way to make classroom discipline gospel-centered. What is needed is internal motivation rather than external conformity. An effective classroom culture should be one that explicitly and implicitly teaches and supports the cultivation of wisdom, virtue, and godliness of students and teachers.

Classroom Culture/Management Checklist:
-The teacher's interactions with students are mutually respectful
-The teacher communicates predictability and support to students
-The teacher has carefully thought out and clearly communicated instructions for routines and transitions
-The teacher has considered how room arrangement may support learning and classroom management
-Students practice classroom routines
-The teacher is consistent in enforcing school and class rules in such a way that students know that the teacher is on their side, wanting them to be successful
-The teacher does not take conflicts personally
-The teacher communicates frequently with parents, and works together with parents on behavior and character issues